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Truth and trust must prevail over disinformation about the pandemic

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As COVID-19 washes across the globe, it carries with it another pandemic: disinformation. This deliberately spread, intentionally false and inaccurate information almost always is created and released as part of a strategic communications plan by foreign adversaries such as China and Russia. The goal of disinformation aimed at American citizens is not to get people to believe a fiction but, rather, to erode trust — trust in their governments, in experts, in society at large and, most importantly, trust in our neighbors, families and friends. Lack of trust rots communities and nations from the inside out. It paralyzes collective decision-making just when decisive action is urgently required. This allows the creators of disinformation to achieve their goals without fear of opposition. 

The United States must take the lead to counter the rise and spread of disinformation in order to preserve democratic values and give people the power to make their communities strong and resilient. 

Current disinformation efforts range from claims that 5G cell towers are causing COVID-19 to China’s sobering accusations about the virus’s origin, or Iran’s propaganda that the U.S. created the virus as a weapon. People who encounter these messages, even if they do not believe them, begin to wonder what information to believe. More dangerously, disinformation can drive people to make decisions that could harm them and their communities. A natural instinct is to denigrate the message and blame the messenger, but public shaming never works. People — or even nation-states — who feel humiliated simply “double down” and become more hardened in their outlook. Psychologists call this emotional reaction “motivated reasoning.” 

A successful campaign against disinformation must not humiliate those who believe it and spread it. Instead, it must provide them the information and “thinking space” to reach a new belief. 

What would a COVID-19 communications policy look like? It could have three prongs: released statements that contain only scientifically validated information; statements free from editorial opinion about the purpose and origin of any false information; and an update on the exact intent and action of the U.S. and its allies to help prevent deaths and preserve prosperity during and after the pandemic. Something resembling such an approach is the equivalent of coordinated, strategic planning and could limit the spread of disinformation, allowing people to make up their own minds about who and what to believe. 

Such a policy is not just about American global leadership. It is about preserving democracy and democratic values, which rests on the key ethic of honest, open and trustworthy choice. People inundated by disinformation are robbed of honest choices. It’s like entering a business contract: If the side offering the contract provides bad information on purpose, the person trying to accept it cannot make a good decision about the deal. Those who create disinformation are offering a bad contract; they are trying to get what they want by tricking the recipient. When America leads the way on preventing and countering disinformation, it ensures good, honest and open deals for Americans. 

U.S. leadership on disinformation gives each of us the power and freedom to make our communities stronger and better because it builds trust — the most important ingredient in how we treat and care for our neighbors, friends and families. Across the United States, and around the world, academics, scientists, health care workers, firefighters, police officers and others are sworn by oath and committed to public safety, health and welfare. Enhanced U.S. leadership against disinformation gives all of us the same power that these public servants have to keep people safe and healthy during this pandemic. 

When facts prevail over disinformation, each person can be confident they are not being given a bad deal — they have what they need to make an honest decision. Having that means neighbors can trust each other and act together to solve any problem, even one as insidious as COVID-19. In turn, these people form a trustworthy, honest community that is able to adapt while retaining its core character and values. It becomes, in a word, unstoppable. 

While it is often said that “truth will win out,” this is not automatic. It requires work and dedication to the principles and ethics of democracy and American values. A people and the nation they create are made strong by mutual trust, which requires honest dealing. This starts with a dedication to the facts and a cohesive plan to disseminate them. Disinformation is created to erode belief in facts and unravel trust, so that those who created it can take advantage of others. 

Establishing a clear communications policy would restore global American leadership in this troubled time, lift democratic values, and empower people to protect and serve their communities. The United States can and should lead the way in doing so. 

Lilian Alessa, Ph.D., is the President’s Professor at the University of Idaho and director of the Center for Resilient Communities (CRC). She has served as a special adviser on data analytics to the Director of National Maritime Intelligence Integration Office, program manager for the Big Data Analytics for Decision Support Program, and as deputy chief of global strategies at the Department of Homeland Security. 

James Valentine is a research associate at the Center for Resilient Communities at the University of Idaho and a retired U.S. Coast Guard officer. His postings included service as a senior adviser to the United States Council on Transnational Organized Crime, and 20 years of intelligence positions in the Coast Guard.

Tags China coronavirus pandemic Disinformation Political communication Propaganda Russia

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